Mines and mining dominate short board meeting

By Craig Moorehead

for the Caledonia Argus


A short agenda yielded a brief meeting of Houston County commissioners on April 29. Most of the session was spent discussing mines and mining.

Chairman Teresa Walter and Commissioner Justin Zmyewski reported that the frac sand ordinance writing committee met the previous day and made some headway.

“I thought it went very well, Zmyewski said. “The group that’s there did a good job of bringing up questions and looking at both sides of the issue and compromising.”

Some of the things that were discussed were setbacks, including the distance between potential mines and  trout streams, wells, houses, feedlots, roads, bluffs, wetlands, parks, trails and city limits.

Dan Krzoska, geographic information systems coordinator, brought in overlay maps that showed not only likely sand deposits, but how they line up with all of the above, Zmyewski stated.

“It’s progressing along. I’m very impressed – compared to the last (frac sand) study committee, it’s going well.

Zmyewski also noted that a controversial conditional use permit renewal was set to go before the county’s Planning Commission on April 30. He asked commissioners to consider the “legal implications” of that.

“Are we even capable of making these decisions (since) we handed off our regional governing authority to the EQB (Environmental Quality Board)? I would make the point that those things will have to be resolved before we can really go forward with this.”

Zmyewski made a motion that the county must sort out the question of whose jurisdiction is involved and clarify the impact of a court order before considering the issue, but later withdrew it before a vote was taken.

Commissioner Dana Kjome had provided a second, stating “Wouldn’t it be good to know if we are the RGU (responsible governing unit) before we go forward?”

Walter said that the Planning Commission should be free to pursue those answers first.

Commissioners called in Rick Frank, environmental services director, and asked him where the complicated and litigious matter stands.

Frank said that mine owner Tracie Erickson sought a substantial change in the volume of sand mining allowed under the conditional use permit in the summer of 2012. Prospector Minnesota Sands attempted to open the facility as a 2 million cubic yard frac sand operation despite a countywide moratorium on new frac sand operations, and the county issued stop work orders on two occasions. A lawsuit ensued, and Minnesota Sands’ claims were dismissed.

Erickson had applied for a renewal of the permit before it expired on Jan. 8, 2013, Frank said. After the matter became embroiled in the courts and the county turned responsibility for an environmental impact statement over to the EQB, any thought of reopening the mine as a 10,000 cubic yard per year construction sand producer evaporated – for a while.

Finally, Erickson presented the county with documentation that claims that his ties to Minnesota Sand have been severed, and said that he wanted to reopen for construction sand mining. That happened on Feb. 27, 2014, Frank added. He said that the “clock began ticking” for the county from that date because his office must approve or deny applications within 60 days (extendable to 120 days) or else they are automatically granted by law.

During the “public comment” portion of the meeting, Sue Van Gorp, of Yucatan Township, asked the board to deny the permit.

Sooner or later, the county board will need to decide, since the Planning Commission is only empowered to make recommendations to the County Board and cannot ratify those decisions.

Van Gorp and her husband own property across the road from the mine.

“How is a permit that expired a year and three months ago not expired?” she asked. Erickson lost this exact case in court when Houston County was the defendant. The judge ruled he did not have the right to mine, even in the more limited sense that had occurred since 1992.

Houston County signs onto special observance

The board also approved a sample proclamation brought by Linda Bahr, human services director. The document names May 8, 2014, as Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day in Minnesota counties.

It encourages “citizens and all agencies and organizations interested in meeting every child’s mental health needs to unite on that day in observance of such exercises as will acquaint the people of Houston County with the fundamental necessity of nurturing and social well-being of children from birth, and providing effective, accessible services and supports for children and youth with mental health needs and their families.”